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Chasing the elusive 'God particle'; Research aims to answer many questions about the universe

When Joe Incandela was growing up in Chicago's west suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, his parents enrolled him and his three older sisters in Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute.

"Both my husband and I were interested in art, and we thought one of them would have this great talent," said Incandela's mother, Rose, 83.

Her son became an outstanding glass sculptor. But he also had an outsize love of science.

"I said he was going to be the scientist," Rose Incandela said. "No, my husband said, he was going to be the artist. And I won."

Indeed she did. Incandela, 55, with a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago, will take leadership Jan. 1 of what is billed as the largest single international science experiment in history: the hunt for the elusive "God particle."

Incandela will direct 3,600 scientists working near Geneva at the 3-year-old Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator. He was elected by his scientific peers to a two-year term as "chief spokesperson" of the Compact Muon Solenoid detector experiment in Europe.

His title, a bit of scientific tact to avoid bruised egos, belies that he is effectively CEO of the CMS experiment, an epic effort to solve what many believe to be the most vexing problem in science: proving or disproving the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. It is the only elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model theory of particle physics that has never been observed.

Knowledge about the Higgs boson would generate data that could begin to answer many questions about the universe: Are there extra, undiscovered dimensions in the universe? How did the universe come to be? Are there undiscovered principles of nature? What is dark matter? What is dark energy?

"It's an exciting time for particle physics," Incandela said. "A little bit like the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope."

The scientists working with Incandela -- 2,200 of them physicists -- are drawn from 178 institutions in 39 nations. At their disposal in the hunt for the Higgs boson is the 15.5-ton, four-story-tall CMS detector, which is attached to the 16.8-mile CERN particle accelerator ring buried 350 feet underground.

Though he abandoned his pursuit of art early on, Incandela is approaching his latest scientific undertaking with the soul of an artist.

"Most artists and most scientists are idealists who do what they do not to make lots of money or to produce something practical in the immediate sense," Incandela said. "They both strive for something that is timeless, that contributes something significant to culture and to humanity."

With his doctorate in physics, Incandela was working on a project in Italy when he received a fellowship to do research at CERN, a French acronym that stands for European Organization for Nuclear Research. He then came back to work at Fermilab, becoming a co-leader of one of several teams using the Tevatron collider to find the so-called top quark, whose existence was suggested by the Standard Model.

The Standard Model was formulated in the 1970s as a theory of fundamental interactions of elementary particles -- elementary because they are not composed of smaller particles. They're the stuff of which atoms, matter and the universe itself are composed. Fermions, quarks, leptons and bosons -- many were given names before anybody knew for sure if they existed, though mathematical modeling strongly suggested they must.

One by one, experiments confirmed the existence of most of them. In 1995, Fermilab experienced one of the century's great scientific triumphs when its researchers, which included Incandela's team, observed and confirmed the existence of the top quark, one of the last unobserved quarks.

That left the Higgs boson as the last predicted elementary particle to be identified. After the top quark success, Incandela moved on to a professorship at the University of California at Santa Barbara and helped design the CMS detector for the Large Hadron Collider, built specifically to search for the Higgs boson.

Since the collider was first turned on in 2008, researchers have been gradually increasing its power as it sends streams of protons racing around the 16.8-mile ring 11,245 times a second, near the speed of light, producing high temperatures "that have not been seen since the Big Bang," Incandela said.

Beams of trillions of protons are squeezed down to a stream one-third as thick as a human hair to generate 600 million particle collisions a second. The CMS detector uses extremely sophisticated 3-D cameras that record the tracks left behind by the colliding protons. Researchers look for telltale track patterns that will pinpoint Higgs boson particles if they exist.